Governments face a ‘trilemma’ in higher education policy as they can always only reach two out of three politically desirable goals – low public costs, low private costs (tuition fees), and mass access.
In their pursuit of competitiveness, higher education institutions across Africa set themselves the target of becoming ‘world class’, and labels such as a ‘world-class African university’ are not uncommon in their mission statements.
While the potential of regional cooperation to develop and strengthen Africa’s higher education sector has long been recognised on paper, progress towards its actualisation has been slow. Against this backdrop, the introduction next year of a Southern Africa masters curriculum in climate change and development represents an important test case for future academic harmonisation.
Since the bonfire of artworks at the University of Cape Town earlier this year, fire as a weapon of protest has spread throughout South Africa’s higher education system, and rekindled beyond. But when the portraits of the ‘colonials’ have been burnt, the timeless questions remain.
If you want to learn about Africa, there’s no need to go to Algeria, Mali, Zambia or anywhere else on the continent. Instead, you’ll need to visit – at great cost – institutions in the global North like Johns Hopkins University or the School of Oriental and African Studies. Places like these host a wealth of African knowledge databases.
On 19 January 2016, in an unprecedented demonstration of clout, the Kenya Commission for University Education ordered Kisii University, a state institution, to close 10 of its 13 branch campuses, and relocate the 15,000 students affected to the main campus. This move brings to 20 the number of campuses ordered closed by the authorities.
Nigerian scholar Oyekan Owomoyela suggested that “getting ‘Africa’ back into African Studies is to get African Studies back to Africa”. This can be achieved, among other ways, by creating a canon of scholarly literature by Africans, more citations of African scholars, and more African scholars influencing the research agendas of top-rated African Studies journals.
Oladapo Afolabi, professor of applied chemistry and former head of service for the Nigerian government, presented a futuristic and thought-provoking paper on transforming universities for this century and beyond, at the Annual Conference of the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities held from 29 May to 2 June at the University of Jos.
South Africa’s government is planning a major overhaul of its student funding system. This comes in the wake of protests at universities that saw students successfully freeze fee hikes for the 2016 academic year. But there are hurdles to equitable student funding that can only be overcome if the student loans system is subject to public scrutiny.
The idea that Africa’s future depends critically on science, technology and innovation is embodied in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. The continent starts at a disadvantage but there are grounds for optimism. Progress will cost billions – but the money is there and the challenge is to invest it in science innovation and technology for development.
As the knowledge economy in Africa grows, so too will the need for more PhD graduates. New methods of teaching and research will be required along with supportive policies, regular assessments to ensure PhD outcomes match skills needs and greater support for research universities.
The Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering 2016 that took place in Senegal last month brought together African and global leaders from science, industry, civil society and government. The aim was to create “a unified African scientific identity integrated into the global scientific community and to inspire talented young people to pursue science”.
African scholarship on Africa is operating at only a fraction of its true potential. It is hampered by the preferences, policies and politics of the Western academy. There are three reasons for this assertion – the poor state of knowledge about African economics and politics; the structure of academic rewards and careers; and ‘Occidentalism’ in theory and policy.
A nascent initiative to create an African grant management standard could help institutions improve administration practices, making them more attractive to donors in turn. But the initiative will only fulfil this promise if African researchers engage with its design to make sure it addresses their problems.
Quality assurance definitely has a role to play at Ethiopia’s universities. But this role will only be truly positive if programmes are modified to take academic considerations into account. They must also become more flexible about collecting essential data at an individual level rather than just focusing on the institutional level.
Last October Dr John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s new president. His slogan is Hapa Kazi tu, which means “It is only work that counts here”. Magufuli has rapidly become a continental icon, and the hash tag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo has been trending for months. His approach has been to cut lavish public spending and redirect the money to development – and universities have not escaped.
Relations with China have revived Africa’s prospects in diverse ways, with investment, trade and development activities that have helped the continent achieve economic growth of 4.5% in 2015. An increasing focus on higher education and skills training was highlighted at the second summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.
South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training has approved a revised version of a contentious 2003 research funding policy. The Research Outputs Policy 2015 comes into effect in January. It has been welcomed by academics as having the potential to introduce considerable changes in how research output funds are awarded. But will the apparently ‘new’ policy actually just be more of the same?
Engineers will play a vital role in meeting the challenges laid out by the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals. But there is a long road ahead for engineering in Africa, which needs at least a tenfold increase in relevant skills. To do this, it must dramatically raise the number of people who make it from the first year of an engineering degree to graduation.
Universities are the anchors, shapers and innovators of nations. Universities also provide the mechanisms for building and rebuilding nations. During the independence period, African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah believed that higher education would be critical to development and growth.
Stories emerging about black students’ experiences in South African universities are nothing short of tragic. Higher education needs to get to grips with transformation. There is no silver bullet, but rethinking how our universities are governed must be central to our efforts.
The Times Higher Education, one of the publishers of global university rankings, recently co-hosted an Africa Universities Summit titled “Moving Africa’s Universities Forward: Building a shared global legacy”. Disappointingly, this took place in the absence of critical African players, despite indicating that the summit included a consultation on regional university rankings.
Strengthening African scientists’ capacity to conduct credible peer review would be one small step to improving the quality of the continent’s science and building the skills of its scientists. Both are key to helping Africa develop its own research agenda.
The rapid expansion of government funding for science in South Africa is perhaps surprising given the present climate of spending cutbacks amid urgent social priorities. Funding for public science in South Africa has increased by 71% in five years. It will reach R7.6 billion in 2015-16.
The old University of Botswana and the new Botswana International University of Science and Technology, both public institutions, have been experiencing a time of turmoil. At one university the vice-chancellor has faced challenges. The other’s leader resigned after only 17 months and left the country.